The Problem: Treating Humans and Nonhumans Differently
I maintain that if we cannot morally justify animal exploitation, we ought not to be advocating for (supposedly) more “humane” or “happy” animal exploitation.
Some of my reasons for my position are more practical.
For example, I do not think that the welfare reforms that are the subject of the welfare campaigns pursued by the large organizations provide any significant level of protection for nonhuman animals. For example, for laying hens, I think the difference between a conventional battery cage and an “enriched” cage is the difference between “torture” and a “tiny bit less torture”–at best. These “reforms,” such as they are, are usually phased in over a lengthy period and sometimes not phased in at all. And there are always problems enforcing these “reforms” to make sure they are implemented.
Moreover, I think that most of these reforms would occur anyway because they seek to modify practices that are economically inefficient (e.g., electric stunning of chickens in favor of controlled-atmosphere killing; eliminating the veal crate in favor of small social units) or, to the extent that they increase production costs, they do so slightly and industry benefits overall (e.g., the “enriched” battery cage).
And I think that when animal organizations support welfare reforms, they cannot help but present the supposedly “higher welfare” products as morally desirable and as resulting in more “compassionate” exploitation, and that has the effect of encouraging people who are concerned about the morality of consuming animals to continue to consume animals, rather than to focus them on veganism as a moral baseline and as the clear answer–both as an individual matter and as a social matter–to the problem of animal exploitation. So pursuing welfare reform has the effect of being counterproductive in terms of advancing veganism.
In this essay, I will discuss some of these practical issues, but I will do so in the context of exploring a more theoretical reason for rejecting welfare reform–what I view as the inherent speciesism of the welfarist approach.
Although rape occurs with alarming frequency, we don’t have campaigns for “humane” rape. Child molestation is an epidemic, but we don’t campaign for “humane” child abuse. Chattel slavery exists in various parts of the world and there are millions who are enslaved, but we don’t campaign for “humane” slavery.
But where animals are concerned, many animal advocates campaign for and promote (supposedly) “humane” or “happy” exploitation.
I see this behavior, which differs depending on whether the context involves human or nonhumans, as problematic.
An Example: What a Bargain! $1.99 per pound for “Happy” Chicken
Let’s consider one example of what I am talking about.
Here is a sign that I saw by the entrance to my local Whole Foods:
In addition to advertising the selling of some poor little chicken whose sad little life is apparently worth $1.99 per pound, the sign says “Global Animal Partnership, Animal Welfare Rating 2: Enriched Environment.”
The “Global Animal Partnership” is “a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 2008,” which
brings together farmers, scientists, ranchers, retailers, and animal advocates—a diverse group with the common goal of wanting to improve the welfare of animals in agriculture. Our signature program, the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards, recognizes and rewards producers for their welfare practices, promotes and facilitates continuous improvement, and better informs consumers about the production systems they choose to support.
An “enriched environment” means that the chickens are kept indoors but are provided with things, such as raised platforms and bales of hay, that allow for expression of natural behaviors.
Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, is on the Board of Directors of the Global Animal Partnership.
But before you criticize HSUS, be aware that Pacelle is not alone in his support of the Whole Foods “happy exploitation” program. In the mid-2000s, when Whole Foods started its “happy exploitation” program, just about every large animal organization in the United States–People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Farm Sanctuary, Mercy For Animals, Compassion Over Killing, and Vegan Outreach–joined Peter Singer and HSUS in expressing their “appreciation and support” for the “pioneering” Whole Foods program of what I call “happy exploitation.”
Whole Foods–quite understandably–used this letter for PR purposes. Peter Singer was asked about this:
How do you feel about that letter being posted in the PR section of the Whole Foods website and when asked about the treatment of farmed animals and humane standards, John Mackey refers to it?
I don’t have any problem with that. I support what the letter says and they’re welcome to use it. I mean, we wrote it to them expecting them to use it. It wasn’t just a personal letter to John Mackey to be put in his filing cabinet.
PETA gave Whole foods an award:
VegNews had Whole Foods CEO on its cover, gave Mackey an award, and named Whole Foods “Favorite Natural Foods Store” for four consecutive years.
And here’s a recording of John Mackey discussing how groups like PETA and Farm Sanctuary served as “stakeholders” in this process and met to discuss–species by species–what standards of exploitation Whole Foods should adopt.
Let me state clearly here that I regard the partnership between animal advocates and Whole Foods as morally repugnant. Most of us would never think that something like this would be acceptable in the human context. Imagine promoting some–any–“humane” version of torture. Imagine giving awards to humans who tortured other humans but did so more “humanely.” Imagine issuing public statements expressing “appreciation and support” for “pioneering” sorts of torture.
These things are hard to imagine because most of us would rule them out from the beginning where humans are concerned. That is, we would say that, although it’s always better to impose less suffering than more suffering, and so it’s better to torture less than more, having a campaign for more “humane” torture–even if it could reduce the torture slightly–would be wrong because it would miss the point: it is wrong to torture humans at all. It is imperative that we be clear that our opposition to torture is not about reducing suffering; it is about affirming a basic human right.
But those who promote animal welfare campaigns and who express their “appreciation and support” of “pioneering” programs of “happy exploitation” in situations in which they would not support similar campaigns if humans were involved are doing just that: they are denying the fundamental moral right of nonhuman animals not to be treated as replaceable resources.
In my view, this involves speciesism: we are treating human exploitation and nonhuman exploitation in different ways and we don’t have a good reason to do so. Continue reading